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The Free Shores of Tripoli

A Libyan rebel fighter
TRIPOLI -- Adham had never picked up a gun before, never mind fired one. But all that changed on August 20, when the tall, lanky, 26-year-old Tripoli resident was handed a weapon and a grenade to fight against the 42-year regime of Muammar Qaddafi. "It was the first time for everyone," he tells me.

I meet Adham on Friday, August 26, in a darkened alley not far from the Mediterranean coast. It is just after sundown, and as the power went off in Tripoli earlier in the day, it is almost impossible to see anything. After I tell him I am a journalist, he welcomes me to a small, impromptu iftar dinner and gives me an impression of how, block-by-block, the Tripoli underground managed to seize nominal control over most of the sprawling capital in just two days.

On the evening of August 20, a Saturday, the uprising within Tripoli began with men chanting anti-Qaddafi slogans at the central Ben Nabi Mosque. This was the "zero hour," as another rebel fighter would tell me. For weeks, rebels had smuggled guns into Tripoli and left them in safe houses; some of the guns used by rebels were also purchased directly from members of the "kataib," or Qaddafi militias. With the August 13 fall of Zawiya, a strategically located city about 30 kilometers west of the capital, all the pieces were in place for rebels to take Tripoli.

But before that could happen, the capital's citizens would have to rise up first. Upon receiving orders from their neighborhood commander, Adham and his fellow rebels immediately began to set up roadblocks with whatever materials were available. "Everyone took their place," he says, in a pattern replicated across the city, while NATO military advisers reportedly coordinated the overall battle plan with rebel commanders outside Tripoli.

The fighting on Adham's block was intense, and about four or five pro-Qaddafi soldiers were killed over the course of 48 hours. The rebels in his neighborhood captured 35 Qaddafi loyalists, all of whom, Adham says, were taken to the local rebel council that had been set up in advance of the uprising as a shadow government to seize control of the city as the regime fell to pieces. "If someone fights, we shoot, but we never kill someone who gives up," he tells me when I ask about reports of reprisal killings.

Soon, we are joined by Nasser, a middle-aged rebel fighter. Hearing that I am an American, he immediately tells me a story that, given the fog of war, may or may not be true. Just the other day, he says, rebel soldiers apprehended four Americans -- an elderly woman and three men -- trying to flee Tripoli by boat to the Mediterranean island of Malta. They were public relations consultants working on behalf of the "son of a bitch" Yusuf Shakir, a regime propagandist, Nasser says. When the rebels who had arrested the Americans turned them over to the Tripoli council, its leaders determined that the Americans should be kept at the downtown Corinthia Hotel. "The council treated them with respect," Nasser tells me. The practical difficulties of communicating with sources and venturing around Tripoli make this tidbit of information impossible to confirm.

I HAD ENTERED Tripoli the morning of Thursday, August 25, three days after rebels claimed to have gained control over most of the city. That might have been the case, but Tripoli did not exactly feel secure for those of us journalists driving its empty streets. Having spent the previous evening sleeping on thin, dirty mattresses in an abandoned apartment building in Zawiya (a town where, we discovered upon our arrival, four Italian journalists had been kidnapped just hours before), a few colleagues and I convinced two Libyans to drive us to the Corinthia, where we knew many journalists were staying.

Rebels had set up checkpoints at what seemed to be every other intersection, so a trip that should have only taken about 20 minutes turned into an hour. Along the way, we passed the headquarters of the Khamis Brigade, named after Qaddafi's youngest son, which rebels had overtaken on August 21. Everywhere lay the detritus of armed combat, from burned-out tanks to spent bullet shells. Arriving at the Corinthia, we were told by the unflappable man behind the front desk that the hotel was full, so we asked our drivers to take us to the Radisson, the other hotel where journalists were shacking up. We made it out right in time; 15 minutes after we left, we later discovered, a huge firefight erupted just outside the Corinthia between Qaddafi loyalists and rebel fighters.

We were told that the Radisson was just down the road from the Corinthia, so we knew something was wrong when we entered a neighborhood where a giant painting of Qaddafi covered a building wall and posters of the Brother Leader hung on lampposts. Given that everywhere else we had ventured in Tripoli had been marked by anti-Qaddafi graffiti, this must have meant that we had entered a neighborhood that had yet to fall under rebel control. Our fears were confirmed when we drove by the giant, bullet-strewn walls of Bab al-Aziziya, Qaddafi's massive compound, which, though the rebels had claimed to have captured it, was still the site of on-again, off-again battles between the two sides. Up ahead we saw a roundabout where an encampment of some sort had been demolished. Freshly dead corpses lay everywhere.

Minutes later we reached the now-infamous Rixos hotel, where some 35 journalists had effectively been held hostage for a week by Qaddafi gunmen. The hotel had only recently been secured by rebels; there was still fighting going on within the Tripoli Zoo, on whose grounds the Rixos is located. We realized at this point that our drivers had not understood us; they had confused the Radisson for the Rixos. After some hurried and emphatic communication with the rebel fighter in charge of guarding the Rixos, we made it to our destination without incident

THE NEXT MORNING, I venture out into Tripoli. An eerie sense of calm seems to have enveloped most of the city. Tripoli looks like a cross between South Central Los Angeles at the height of the 1992 riots and Sierra Leone during its civil war. The only people on the streets are young men -- and boys -- carrying guns. They are dressed in street clothes and look like gangbangers, and would be more intimidating were they not so friendly (REO Speedwagon T-shirts and Hawaiian shorts are not soldierly affectations). Save a bus with some women and girls, not once do I see a female Libyan outside.

All the Libyans I meet tell me that there was minimal looting during the period of unrest, a remarkable fact given that food and water have begun to run short. The preservation of order may also have something to do with the organizational structures that Tripoli residents had established in preparation for the uprising. Neighborhoods began organizing councils at least three months ago, several Tripoli residents tell me, not just for distributing weapons and planning for the seizure of key sites within the city, but for essential, noncombatant activities such as food and water distribution.

The revolution was truly from the bottom up, and the intimacies of neighborhood life enabled anti-Qaddafi Libyans to organize effectively and covertly. Although political organizing was next to impossible in the police state Qaddafi had established during his four decades in power, the slow progress of the rebels, the ongoing NATO bombardment, and the widespread international condemnation of the regime seem to have spurred Tripoli residents to perform a degree of underground coordination that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago. "We know the opposite guys; we know each other," Mohammed Abou Gabha, a 21-year-old training to become a pilot who is now manning a checkpoint, tells me. "We know who wants Qaddafi and who doesn't want Qaddafi, and we got together."

The councils plan to start collecting the very guns they distributed just a little over a week ago from rebel soldiers for whom weapons are no longer essential. "If you leave a weapon in the hands of a civilian, this will be very complicated, very difficult," Abdullah Ahmed Bilal, a gregarious commodore in the Libyan navy, tells me. "We have seen what's happened in Iraq." That task will be easier than it sounds, at least judging by the faces of the young men strutting around with a feeling of power and accomplishment that they've certainly never felt before.

Although Libyans would not have won this revolution without outside intervention, the magic of the relatively limited NATO effort is that it has largely left the task of post-conflict internal rebuilding to Libyans themselves. There are no foreigners dispatching provincial reconstruction teams as in Iraq and Afghanistan; Libyans are already performing this civic work by clearing their streets of rubble and organizing neighborhood watch shifts. The war is one that Libyans fought very hard to win; I get the distinct impression that the vast majority of them are eager not to let this moment -- 42 years in the making -- slip through their fingers. They want to rebuild their country, and given the dire circumstances, it's impressive that there has been no outbreak of mass chaos.

The other remarkable thing about Libya is that it is the only Arab country where America is not just liked, but loved. (Speaking with Libyans, I never feel I have to lie and say I am Canadian, as I sometimes do in other Arab countries to avoid potentially dodgy situations.) That its people love America precisely because their country has been bombed by it is all the more noteworthy. In Libya right now, Americans are the recipients of precisely the sort of admiration and gratitude they thought they would receive in Iraq eight years ago. One hopes that by playing a limited role in the country's stabilization and reconstruction, they will be able to maintain that gratitude.

Whether or not Libyans can preserve their unity will be crucial to the country's future. For more than four decades, Qaddafi subsumed any genuine sense of national unity to obligatory worship in his cult of personality. In just six months, though they lack many of the traditional institutions of a state (like Egypt's fabled military), Libyans have nonetheless forged a shared consciousness by fighting together, and working together, to kick Qaddafi out. This may be shaky ground on which to build the foundations of a functioning democracy, but it is something. When I ask Adham about the concerns many in the West have about Libya's "tribal society," he bristles at the question. "This is untrue," he tells me with a frustrated tone. "There are no tribes. Libya is united, Insha'Allah."

originally published at "Foreign Policy"